Tzfat is best known for its many historic synagogues, inherited from the town’s remarkable emergence in the early 16th century as a vibrant center of both Jewish mysticism and rabbinical scholarship, both of which strands still play an important role in our religious and cultural life today. Ironically however, Tzfat’s early origins as an important regional center owe more to the Crusaders, the Christian invaders of the 12th and 13th centuries, than to its later – and more celebrated – Jewish inhabitants.
In 1096-99, the Crusaders’ success in cutting a swathe through the Muslim kingdoms of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Syria and the Land of Israel is remarkable inasmuch as the army of the First Crusade included no more than 3000 knights – the mounted cavalry that was its strike force. The Crusaders’ numerical disadvantage was compensated for initially in large part by the lack of unity in the Moslem world. They set up a kingdom of their own, with Jerusalem as its capital, stretching from Beirut in the north to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and reaching eastward across the Jordan to control the main north/south pilgrimage route between Damascus and Mecca. However, protecting and defending the territory they had conquered against such huge odds required a different strategy.
The Crusaders could not control all the territory they had acquired just by occupying it – there were not enough of them – so they focused on building fortresses, which could act as defensive bastions against attack, at key points. These fortresses – medieval castles with an inner keep and often multiple defensive walls – were usually built on high points that controlled important roads and were close to a source of water. The 850 meter hill on which Tzfat now stands was ideal from this point of view; it sits alongside a main road leading from the port of Acre (Akko) on the Mediterranean, eastward to Damascus, and it is watered year-round by the Amud stream.
The Crusaders built a huge three-walled citadel at Tzfat – Safed, as it was known; they lost it in 1187 when Saladin united the Moslem armies to defeat the Crusaders. But they were back in 1240, rebuilt the walls, and occupied it for another 25 years until the Mameluk general Baibars tricked them into opening the gates and promptly massacred the whole garrison. The Mameluks, who ruled the Land of Israel for the next 250 years, turned Safed into one of their regional capitals; but it essentially disappears from the spotlight of history until its flowering as Jewish center in the 16th century.
After you have visited the synagogues of the old town, whose names recall those of the great rabbis of this wondrous period, it is worthwhile walking up to the citadel to see the remains of those earlier arrivals, who set Tzfat on its path to prominence.